Richmond, Washington show bite as underdogs Sweet 16 berth at stake as similar paths converge

East at Washington

March 14, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On Thursday afternoon, they each played the same role in their opening-round games in the NCAA East Regional here at the MCI Center. In respective one-point victories over sixth-seeded Xavier and third-seeded South Carolina, Washington and Richmond nearly followed the same script.

Each built an early comfortable lead.

Each fought off a furious comeback.

Each held its breath as the other team had a shot to win.

The 11th-seeded Huskies and 14th-seeded Spiders, two of many Cinderellas in this year's NCAA tournament, are still waiting to exhale. With the opportunity to make the Sweet 16 next week in Greensboro, N.C., Washington (19-9) and Richmond (23-7) meet this afternoon.

"It's not important who the favorite is. What's important is that Richmond and Washington believe we should be here," Huskies center Todd MacCulloch said yesterday.

"It's almost a disadvantage to be in that position [of favorite]."

It's a position with which Washington coach Bob Bender has some familiarity, having spent six years as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at the beginning of Duke's dynasty.

But Bender recalled the Blue Devils being in a similar position to his Huskies during an opening-round game in 1984.

Duke was seeded third and playing sixth-seeded Washington in Pullman, Wash. The Huskies won.

"Once you're an underdog, you're always the underdog," said Bender, now in his fifth year at Washington after four years as head coach at Illinois State. "You maintain that mentality. That's what you wear on your shoulder."

It's a label that first-year Richmond coach John Beilein wears proudly.

"I enjoy that role," Beilein said yesterday. "I'm a lot less nervous and my team probably plays better and more relaxed when I'm not a basket case."

It's a role the Spiders made a history of playing in the tournament under Dick Tarrant. In 1984, Richmond beat Auburn and Charles Barkley in the opening round before losing to Indiana. In 1988, they beat the Hoosiers and Georgia Tech before losing to Temple in the Sweet 16.

But the game most remember took place at Cole Field House in 1991, when the 15th-seeded Spiders upset second-seeded Syracuse.

Though Richmond lost two days later to the Owls, the victory over the Orangemen became part of the tournament's lore.

It marked the first time a 15th seed had won since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

"That's the first time I watched the NCAAs and I was pretty upset because Syracuse was my team," said Eric Poole, then a 14-year-old in Beltsville, Md., and now one of two seniors in Richmond's starting lineup. "It's strange that I ended up going there."

The Huskies have no such recent history. This is Washington's first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1986. You have to go back to 1984 when Washington won two games in the same tournament.

The Huskies' size, with MacCulloch and fellow 7-footer Patrick Femerling, should give them an advantage, but Bender is wary of a Richmond team that executes its half-court offense "like they did when Clair Bee, Adolph Rupp and Phog Allen were coaching."

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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